“Aqualung” by British rock band Jethro Tull tells a story of human perception and the diverse perspectives that people have of others as well as themselves. The song was inspired by a picture of a homeless man that the wife of Ian Anderson, the multi-instrumentalist lead singer of Jethro Tull, took, thus awakening Anderson’s muse. The song discusses the conflicting emotions and uncertainty when judging a person, or in the case of the song, the character of “Aqualung”, the homeless man. Anderson may also have intended the song to be critical of the person who is judging Aqualung.
“Sitting on the park bench —
eyeing little girls with bad intent.
Snot is running down his nose —
greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
Drying in the cold sun —
Watching as the frilly panties run.
Feeling like a dead duck —
spitting out pieces of his broken luck.
The first verse is describing the impression of initial fear and disgust when seeing Aqualung, reinforced by a jagged, rigid guitar riff by guitar player Martin Barre and gritty vocals by Ian Anderson. Often times, people scorn the homeless, seeing them as uncivilized. They assume that the homeless have been brought to this state because they were careless, they didn’t go to college, they wasted their lives away consuming drugs and alcohol, etc. People, being scornful, assume that Aqualung is also scornful in his current state, only with “bad intent”. They assume that he who has been unfortunate only wishes ill for others and for themselves. How many times have you or someone you have known passed by a homeless person begging for spare change but refrained from giving, thinking, “Oh, well he would only use that money to buy another drink or pack of cigarettes,”? When people see Aqualung, all they can see is a disgusting man with “snot running down his nose” and “greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”. Because he appears to be so uncivilized, others seem to immediately come to the conclusion that his desires are animalistic – the lust for sensual pleasures. These assumptions are the result of the viewer comparing Aqualung’s appearances to their own and thinking about what Aqualung must done or not have done to have ended up in this state. Because Aqualung obviously must have done something socially unacceptable to have been degraded in such a way, the viewer chooses not to trust him. This verse represents initial impressions and judgements of people based on their appearances. Aqualung is not the only person who is judged by his appearances. It is in human nature to draw conclusions based on physicalities, even if they are based on stereotypes and prejudices.
Now, the mood of the song has completely flipped. Heavy, rigid, electric riffs have been replaced by clean, acoustic chords and angsty vocals are now distant and echoing. The lyrics now portray a different perspective of Aqualung, one that is more introspective and sympathetic. This second verse describes a judgement based on what the viewer assumes Aqualung must be feeling, rather than what he looks like. The viewer looks beyond the initial physical assessment of Aqualung and instead begins to understand his suffering. Rather than a “greasy”, “shabby”, man, Aqualung is now “an old man wandering lonely”. The person viewing Aqualung has removed him/herself from the equation by no longer comparing the man to him/herself but rather imagining themselves in Aqualung’s place. This verse is a metaphor for the acceptance of a person for who they are after overcoming the initial obstacle of judgement by physicality. If all people would contemplate other people rather than judge them by their appearances, acceptance and tolerance would be much more widespread and scorn would be minimized in society. In my own little mental fantasy land, I would like to imagine that the viewer would have given some spare change to the “old man wandering lonely”, rather than simply forgetting their sympathies and passing him by.
“Feeling alone —
the army’s up the road
salvation a la mode and
a cup of tea.
Aqualung my friend —
don’t you start away uneasy
you poor old sod, you see, it’s only me.“
“Do you still remember
The December’s foggy freeze —
when the ice that
clings on to your beard was
And you snatch your rattling last breaths
with deep-sea-diver sounds,
and the flowers bloom like
madness in the spring.”
Ian Anderson now brings the tale to a close, in which he describes in detail Aqualung’s demise. He describes the painfully icy winters that Aqualung had to endure throughout his life. The cold may not be the only pain in Aqualung’s life that Anderson is describing. The “foggy freeze” could also be referring to the icy personas of ignorant passersby. The “ice that clings on to your beard” is a metaphor the fact that he is judged based on his appearance. An unkempt beard is Aqualung’s trademark as well as a reason to deem him “uncivilized”. The ice clinging to his beard symbolizes the stereotypes associated with his unruly facial hair. Now, Aqualung takes his “rattling last breaths” and emits “deep-sea-diver sounds” (a reference to an actual aqualung used in scuba diving), but as he passes on “the flowers bloom like madness in the spring”. I believe that these flowers represent the fact that goodness can exist even in the darkest of places. Amidst all of the December fog, there was still the viewer who saw past Aqualung’s physical features and sympathized with him. This person is a miracle flower growing in the middle of an icy December, a beacon of hope to an otherwise lost and hopeless man.
Aqualung is essentially the story of how ignorance leads to suffering, while an open mind brings hope to others. An open mind that can sympathize with others is a miracle, like flowers blooming in December. Someone once told me that when a homeless person is begging for spare change, try to offer something if you can. Even if he or she is obviously drunk and probably plans on using it to buy another drink, try to help, because if another drink gets them through the day, so be it. If he or she can get through the day, and the next day, and the next, then perhaps, with hope, he or she can get through to a day when they are able to get back on their feet. We will never know how Aqualung got to where he is, but that doesn’t matter. All that is important is that he is another human being who needs your help to make it through the day. If we could all just simply overcome our prejudices on physical appearances and social standings, then we could perhaps grow a garden of miracle flowers and conquer the foggy December of society.
Thank you all so much for your support. Once again, these interpretations are all my own and if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or questions, just let me know. Kudos to Ian Anderson for this awesome song and remember, anyone can make an impact on anyone’s life.